LAKEVIEW — Musician Christopher LeMark was listening to rapper Meek Mill in a crowded coffee shop at Millennium Station in 2018 when he had a mental breakdown that he says changed his life.
“I was turning 40, and all I could afford for lunch was a coffee and a slice of lemon loaf from Starbucks,” LeMark said. “All my money was going to bills, and I had all these unresolved childhood issues that happened in the group home I was raised in.”
LeMark had never healed from the physical, mental and emotional abuse he experienced as a child in foster care, he said. Additionally, he was unhappy with his job, struggling to maintain relationships and losing touch with his passion for music.
“I fell apart and started crying uncontrollably,” LeMark said. “But that breakdown became my breakthrough because it pushed me to go to therapy, which changed my life.”
Going to therapy helped LeMark learn the abuse he suffered wasn’t his own fault, he said, and it inspired him to create Coffee, Hip-Hop and Mental Health, a non-profit organization and Lakeview-based coffee shop, 3243 N. Broadway, that’s raising money to send 250 Chicagoans to therapy.
The initiative, which LeMark dubbed Normalize Therapy University, seeks to raise at least $200,000 to pay for the first five therapy sessions for 250 people. Part of that goal includes selling at least 10,000 cups of coffee at the cafe so its proceeds can fund the initiative.
So far, the nonprofit has sent eight people to therapy and has another 43 signed up to meet with therapists soon, LeMark said.
On May 23, the nonprofit is also hosting a 5-mile walk-and-run for Mental Health Awareness Month that aims to raise at least $25,000 for Normalize Therapy University, LeMark said.
The event will begin at 5:15 a.m. at the East 41st Street Bike-Ped Bridge in Bronzeville. Participants will watch the sunrise together before walking or running to the McCormick Place Bird Sanctuary and back. People can donate to the fundraiser by texting “donate.NTU21” to 77948.
“Just like we’re planning to sell 10,000 cups of coffee, we’ll be taking 10,000 steps that day to raise awareness for this important conversation around mental health,” LeMark said.
Coffee, Hip-Hop and Mental Health launched in July 2019 with a three-hour event at Bassline in the South Loop, LeMark said. The gathering attracted 20 participants who enjoyed live music and conversations with licensed therapists about mental health.
A month later, the group held its second event at the Promontory in Hyde Park, where 133 people showed up.
“We just kept growing and growing until March 2020, which was our final event because the pandemic hit and large gatherings couldn’t happen anymore,” LeMark said.
That’s when the organization pivoted to running a People’s Food Drive, which has fed more than 7,000 families since the pandemic started, and gearing up for the organizations next big project: opening and operating a cafe where people could buy coffee and merchandise, hang out and talk more about mental health.
With a growing network of more than 2,100 volunteers, LeMark and his team transformed an empty storefront in Lakeview into a cafe, which opened in November and serves as a hub for the group’s operations.
There, LeMark sells T-shirts, sweaters and other merchandise for to raise money to keep the brand alive, he said. The cafe also sells specialty coffee drinks — named after hip-hop artists like Kanye West, Diddy and Megan Thee Stallion — and pastries supplied by local businesses like Do-Rite Donuts and Chicago Sugar Daddy Patisserie.
“This concept shop is not just a coffee shop, but it’s a food pantry and a safe space for people to come,” LeMark said.
Volunteers come into the shop from across Chicago and neighboring states like Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan to help with design, packing and shipping merchandise, making deliveries for the food pantry and writing grants, LeMark said.
Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., the cafe hosts group sessions with licensed therapists.
Past discussions have centered around motherhood complications, relationship goals and the power of words, LeMark said. On Wednesday, the group will discuss the meaning behind J-Cole’s song “Love Yourz,” and a May 19 discussion will focus on sex, intimacy and mental wellbeing, LeMark said.
“This is what turning pain into power looks like,” LeMark said. “This is the people’s coffee shop. The people built this through collaboration, and that’s why it’s such a safe space.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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